Glorifying the ’50s Housewife & The Rise of Cath Kidston

By Cate Sevilla

Whether or not Cath Kidston’s florals and polka dots make you want to vom or squee with joy, there’s no denying Kidston’s success in the recession, and as a business woman in general.

The Guardian have a lovely little feature on Kidston, describing how after being diagnosed with Breast Cancer, Kidston quit the interior design business and started up what we know now as Cath Kidston Inc.

Her rose bud ironing boards and baby blue tea cosies have seen her sales increase from last year's £19.2m to £31.3m, and while entire chains like Woolworths are closing down, Kidston is still opening stores.

So what is Kidston doing right, that everyone else is doing wrong?

Apparently it’s a combination of nostalgia and the fact that since millions of people can’t exactly sell their homes, they’re trying to make the best of their domains. And what better way to do that than throw up some polka dot bunting and dress yourself in a floral house coat, I mean frock.

But mixed in with the nostalgia and the reality of being stuck in your too small flat that just won’t sell...there’s something else.

Zoe Wood explains that Kidston’s popularity also stems from the fad of women embracing the image of the '50s housewife:

“...celebrating baking, afternoon tea and knitting, have become addictive for a generation of women whose busy working and home lives have led them to idealise rather than practise domesticity. “

Between all of us at BitchBuzz, we’re obviously not adverse to baking, knitting and do tend to love us some Kidston . However, you have to wonder where all this came from. Why are women loving this stuff again? Or did it ever go away?

I suppose a lot of it is just liking what you want to like. 

We’re not afraid of liking things that aren’t “feminist enough”. In some cases,  a lot of strong, independent women loving corsets and all things domestic is a raised middle finger in the direction of the 2nd wavers. 

“See? I can be a feminist and bake a casserole for my boyfriend at the same time!”

But with all those "vintage” dresses, £10 pearls, love of cupcakes and tea and the illusion that we all only care about nomming on baked goods and looking retro-tastic and get’s pretty confusing.

Is it silly and frivolous or ironic? Is it genuine or just a simple passing fad?

Even I’m confused by it.

While I do drool over a lot of bits and bobs I see in Cath Kidston’s shops – I suppose the way I feel about Kidston is similar to the way I feel about fairy cakes and girly cocktails.

Individually, I like it. Different pieces, whether it be a Kidston polka dot wallet or 1920s tea party in Covent Garden, it’s fun. But when I look at Kidston’s collections as a whole, my eyes bleed a little. Just as this subsequent movement of faux nostalgic “let’s bake and drink tea and go vintage shopping and then bake some more” makes my brain haemorrhage.

When it’s all mashed together, it just doesn’t seem authentic and/or tolerable.

I’m not saying that people who like to knit or crochet and bake and enjoy their afternoon tea in a  Kidston tea cup aren’t genuine.

 What I am saying, is that mixed all together, it’s a bit overkill, isn’t it?

Everything in moderation...

Just as Albert Wolsky advised that when it comes to '50s fashion that: “One should not overdo it.  It's very easy to slide into total costume." The same should be said of our apparent love of florals, nostalgia, and glorification of the ‘50s housewife.

I suppose I’m just more of Coco’s “simple elegance” school of thought. I believe that too much of a good thing makes you sick. I like to save my Vivienne of Holloway dress for special occasions and my cupcake baking for when I’m going to a dinner party.

Otherwise, I’d just feel like a try-too-hard Stepford Wife, high on icing sugar, and low on noughties realism.

Mon, 10 Aug 2009 11:24 (GMT+01)
13 Responses

Great post on a topic I've been thinking over for a while now.

I love to bake and cook, I recently helped set up a sewing club for the local area to share "make do and mend" tips and skills, and I confess there is a strong duck-egg blue vibe running through my kitchen... but I hate the idea that this is seen to be treading on the toes of the feminist cause.

As I wrote in a recent blog post about Disney, I thought feminism was about choice - being able to do the domestic thing if that was what you wanted, or go down the career path if that was your choice - or even both, if you're feeling noughties-wonderwoman-esque!

I think as long as we take the styling and values of the idolised 50s housewife with a dose of realism - acknowledge that they didn't have our freedom and celebrate our right to choose our path - baking the odd cake for the boys in design (also known as "keeping them sweet" ;) ) is neither betraying the sisterhood nor disregarding the modern era.

Mon, 10-Aug-2009 10:53 GMT

Hi Caroline! Yes, very much agreed. My kind of feminism is about choice, too, and it's the "dose of realism" with all the cake baking and Kidston florals that's important. (Nothing wrong with duck-egg blue in your kitchen. Mine is bright blue and...yes, pink.)

Thanks for your comment! :)

Mon, 10-Aug-2009 11:17 GMT

"Is it silly and frivolous or ironic?" -- This has been bothering me for ages. I like a lot of girly and retro stuff, but don't really see myself as a girly-girl. Am definitely not a 50s housewife (Cleaning? What's that?) but have baked a few cupcakes recently and enjoyed it.

I think I agree with you... everything in moderation!

Lori Smith
Mon, 10-Aug-2009 12:15 GMT

Another corking post from you! I agree - I'm all about choice, and feminism is really about us being empowered to make whatever choices those are and being confident in those decisions. For me, feminism shouldn't pigeonhole you - we had to conform and be pigeonholed for too long. I have no desire to be a fifties housewife but I love being creative and even more importantly, I like doing what I enjoy and not apologising for it. I like isolated pieces of CK, but I get very jittery in the shop which is an assault on my eyes! I like some pink, just not on gadgets.

Mon, 10-Aug-2009 14:08 GMT

In the words of Andrew WK... "Everything in moderation, including the phrase, 'everything in moderation.'"

Great post Cate!

rachael gibson
Mon, 10-Aug-2009 19:16 GMT

Great post Cate! I think many women are redefining feminism and this post supports that.

Mon, 10-Aug-2009 22:28 GMT

Hi Cate

This is something I have thinking about for ages too! There is something that irks my anti-consumerist soul about CK, with its propensity to flog branded washing powder and matchboxes for extremely inflated prices, but then like any company it is selling a dream life: that of a country housewife. As other people have said, from a feminist stance, buying CK stuff is all about moderation. I admit to having some CK bunting and a purse, but the thing that riles me both is half the things in her shop make me think: I could make that!!

Katie A
Wed, 12-Aug-2009 12:32 GMT

Great post! The whole CK obsession always plays on my mind for this reason. Nothing wrong at all with being interested in baking and homemaking, but as Caroline said we have to look at the 50s housewife obsession with a dose of realism and think about what we're idolising.

Thu, 13-Aug-2009 06:08 GMT

I have to say that I have never heard of Cath Kidston before your post and I had to check out the site. Super cute. I love being a "housewife" on my own terms. I cook, I clean, I bake, I do the laundry etc. and have found myself searching for more "green" or "organic" means of keeping things tidy; going back to a sort of retro era in a sense by using products we have around the house like lemons, distilled vingar and baking soda.

I never really thought of this as a movement since I was searching for ways to make my house a home since I was laid off. I definitely feel that women can be "housewives" and still be feminists because we have the choice now and we can choose how and when to do our house chores. It also helps when you have a partner who lends a hand too :)

Great Post!

Amorette M
Fri, 14-Aug-2009 21:43 GMT

Thanks so much everyone for your comments! I really appreciate it.

Amorette M, have you tried out Method? A great way to get your home clean, without all the nasty chemicals.

Fri, 14-Aug-2009 22:43 GMT

As per Caroline's comment, surely the whole point of feminism is to be able to choose. I'm baffled by the bitchiness in some online communities (especially when you get the age-old stay-at-home vs working mums topic rearing it's ugly head). Decorate your house however you want. Call it ironic or kitsch if it makes you feel better about yourself!

I did discuss something similar to this topic with friends a few weeks ago though. One of them told a story about a colleague that's so terrified she's about to lose her job, she's "nesting" and trying to create the perfect home environment so that her bf won't leave if it happens. Obviously a rarity but is it possible that some women are taking the backlash against feminism to new heights?

Catherine LC
Fri, 04-Sep-2009 16:31 GMT

I'm super late commenting here, but there is an actual term for this phenomenon: Pinny Porn.

Mon, 26-Apr-2010 15:05 GMT

Hello, I wonder if this may be of interest to anyone here?

My name is Mark Ferguson and I am a researcher working on a new 5-part series looking at life in the 1950s, due to be broadcasted on BBC1 throughout the UK in March 2012. The programme is a celebratory hark back to the 1950s using first hand interviews and our rich BBC archive.

I am trying to find someone who loved cooking in the 50s and followed recipes from the radio and television and magazines at the time. The short film will look at food in the 1950s and i an really looking for someone who was a housewife in the 50s and can tell me a little about food and cooking was back then.

Please do get in touch for a chat if you are interested, I'd love to hear from you.

Thank you.

Mark Ferguson

Mark Ferguson
Fri, 23-Dec-2011 16:05 GMT

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